We use it every day in our writing, reading, and speaking. But what do we know about the letters that form the words we use? Let’s use them to learn some fun facts about the alphabet, starting with its name.
What is the English Alphabet?
English speakers use the Roman or Latin alphabet, as do most European countries, except Greece and several Slavic countries. Most of the alphabets used today are derived from eight other alphabet groups: Arabic, Aramaic, Armenian, Brahmi, Cyrillic, Georgian, and Greek. For example, Hebrew developed from the Aramaic, Sanskrit evolved from the Brahmi, and Pashtu (the primary language of Afghanistan) derives from the Arabic alphabet.
Read on for more facts about the alphabet.
Most Letters Evolved From Heiroglyphs.
We trace the evolution of the Roman alphabet back to civilizations that used hieroglyphs as a form of writing. Over time, these pictorial symbols transformed into simplified characters that eventually became the basis for some letters.
For example, we derived our letter “A” from the symbol for an ox, which is aleph in the Hebrew and Semitic languages, or alp in the Proto-Canaanite.
During the Proto-Sinaitic period, the symbol for an ox was simplified. The Phoenicians straightened out the lines but kept the horns. Over time, the symbol was turned 90 degrees, creating the Latin “A.”
You can see similar transformations with M and O. These changes are evident in nearly every Latin letter, with a few exceptions. The Proto-Sinaitic symbol for gami, or “throwstick,” led to C and G. And U, V, W, and Y are derived from the hieroglyph for “fowl” or bird.
English has More Sounds than Letters.
We have 26 letters in the alphabet, but we use them to create 44 different sounds, or phonemes (phonics). A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound we make when speaking, and graphemes are how we represent those sounds when we write.
These 44 phonemes are one reason English language learners (and many native speakers) find spelling confusing.
We group the phonemes we use into two categories: consonants and vowels. To create consonant phonemes, we cut off some or all of the airflow. Vowels happen when our tongues don’t stop the airflow.
Out of the major world languages, only Hindi and Danish have as many phonemes. The French have 35, the Italians 31, the Japanese 29, the Koreans 28, the Spanish 24, and the Greeks 23. The internet is full of videos demonstrating the confusion of English spelling and pronunciation. Check out Why English is Hard to Learn for an example.
Imagine learning that the following spellings have the same sound:
a, ai, eigh, aigh, ay, er, et, ei, au, a_e, ea, ey
Or that the following vowel combinations create the same sound:
- bay, maid, weigh, straight, pay, foyer, filet, eight, gauge, mate, break, they
Since these vowel combinations create the same sound, the following symbol is used to describe them: eɪ. That symbol, as well as β, ð, ʁ, ʕ, ʢ b ḅ ƀ b̶ b̸ ь ъ ɓ ʙ β c ć ꞓ ȼ č ç ƈ ɕ ʗ and more, are part of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Linguists use the symbols to classify all phonemes used in nearly every known language.
More than 26! That’s Olde English for You
The Old English alphabet contained letters we no longer use, such as thorn (þ), eth (ð), wynn (ƿ), yogh (ȝ), ash (æ), and ethel (œ), for a total of 32. These letters were eventually included in our alphabet.
Wynn (ƿ), for example, was replaced by w. Wonder why we don’t pronounce the “gh” in daughter? The removal of yogh (ȝ) is responsible. And eth (ð) was once a vowel.
The removal of the letters did not reduce the phonemes. It did, however, increase spelling confusion.
The Alphabet Used to Contain 23 letters.
The Old English letters were not the only ones removed. At one time, our alphabet was down to 23 letters. J, U, and W were added later. The letter “w” came to us from the eliminated wynn, becoming uu before it morphed into w.
In the 16th century, U and V were broken into two letters; U became a vowel and V a consonant. J was added to the English alphabet at the beginning of the 17th century.
The Alphabet Used to Contain 27 Letters.
When students recite the alphabet, they typically end in “x, y, and z.” That’s good, except “and” is not a letter. So the symbol for and—the ampersand—was written as the 27th letter.
However, students did not say “x, y, ampersand, z.” Instead, they would use the Latin term per se, which means “in itself.” The letter y is “in itself” because it is both a letter and a word. The same is true for A & I. So the alphabet could be read “A, per se, B, C, D, E….” Eventually, and thankfully, the per se, or ampersand, or & were dropped.
Z Was Once Removed from the Alphabet.
Next up in these facts about the alphabet: at one point, the alphabet ended in y. Appius Claudius Caecus, a Roman statesman who held several positions, including Censor, Consul, Praetor, and Dictator, reportedly removed the letter. He felt it was redundant because at the time z was pronounced as r, so the lowly z served no purpose.
Two centuries later, it was reintroduced via words that had Greek roots.
Pranksters enjoy posting “press releases” like these:
“After carefully considering and debating the matter for over two years, the ELCC came to the conclusion that the letter “Z” should be removed from the English alphabet. The main objective of this change is to simplify the phonetic aspect of the language, and to unify the American and British spellings.”
However, Hoax Analyzer labels the news as a hoax. But what if Hoax Analyzer is a hoax?
Bonus Fact: One Letter Cannot Be Found in the Fifty States.
The alphabet in its current form has 26 letters, and we have 50 states. So which letter is not found in any of the states’ names?
It’s not Z—Arizona and New Jersey have that letter.
Nor is it X—Texas and New Mexico contain an X.
It’s Q—the same dreaded letter that no player wants in the Alphabet Game, which parents used to play with kids back in the day. Nowadays, kids have hand held video consoles or cell phones.
I hope you enjoyed this collection of facts about the alphabet. There is more to the alphabet than a, b, c and x, y, and z (and no longer &). As a Lover of Words, it’s good to know something about the letters that make up words.